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Uno Dos of Trace: Does Movie Violence Make You Cringe? Me Too! Here’s the Science...

6 minutes

Ow! Oh, did you feel that? Ouch, right? That reaction is an evolutionary response that's based in your social somatosensory system. But before I explain why you react to me getting hurt, let me tell you how we got here. Since I quit my job to make videos for you all full time-- which I love, by the way-- I decided to start watching the Marvel cinematic and television universe in chronological order. Let me tell you, it's been amazing. But one thing really jumps out to me when I watch shows like this and I have some questions.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Movies are one of my favorite things. Film is a technology that is just so advanced and incredible at this point in our history, and yet the human brain, when it looks at a movie or a film, can't actually tell the difference between that and reality. This is why we emotionally react to movies so much because our brains are too dumb to know the difference between a television and literally a person. And there is this thing that's happened my whole life that I just never understood. When someone in a movie got punched, or cut, or kicked, or hurt, I felt it. I felt it exactly where they did. If I saw someone get hit in the face, my hand would just go right there.

[GRUNTING]

Oh, my gosh. Oh! Why? This didn't seem to happen to everybody else. Why was I the weird one out on this? Now I know it's the somatosensory system, which comes down to mirror neurons, empathy, and maybe for some people, synesthesia. Humans are a social species. We evolved to interact and to build groups. And because of that, when we see someone being touched, there are actually neurons in our brain that activate. We call them mirror neurons. They were first discovered in the brains of monkeys. It turns out we have them, too, in our somatosensory cortex, which, by the way, runs along the edge of the parietal lobe, which is like here at the top and back of our brain. These neurons develop before we're even a year old and scientists think that they evolved to help us understand other people's actions, which totally makes sense. They're called mirror neurons because if, say, I touched the left side of my face, your mirror neurons light up on the right, mirroring what you're seeing. I've said it before and I'll say it again-- nerds, you're good at naming things. The thing is, different people's personalities will affect how mirror neurons behave and that brings us to empathy, which by the by, is a Greek word invented by a British psychologist who was trying to approximate a German word which already existed. That's this one and it's called einfuhlungsvermogen or something, which means the ability to feel into. Which is a great descriptor of empathy. Empathy is more or less the ability to put yourself in another person's shoes. It's actually a really tough definition to nail down scientifically or psychologically, it's sort of all over the place. For our purposes, I'm going to use sharing an experience or feeling what someone else feels definitions because that's how it actually happens with this. Scientists have done fMRI studies and they found that some people's somatosensory cortises activate when they watch films of other people being touched. Their mirror neurons light up. Sun's getting real low. And I wondered if this applied to other people, like blind people. And according to at least one study, both humans' and monkeys' mirror neurons respond even to the sound of an action. So the sound of, say, someone touching hair or different parts of the body could make a difference in your mirror neurons. There's even a famous experiment where people are positioned in such a way that it appears the hand on the table in front of them is their own hand. This hand is my hand. But it's not. It's actually fake hand. Oh, wait that's your hand. When researchers touch the fake hand with a paintbrush, the participant's brain lights up as if they'd been touched on their hand. No, wait, it's my hand. Even though they haven't, their hand is nowhere near there, it's incredible, right? We humans want to have social and empathetic tactile interaction so badly we will trick ourselves into thinking that we're having one. There's even evidence that mirror neurons exist for emotions, like when you see someone cry, and then you want to cry. You feel anything? Right, emotion. Empathy, mirror neurons. So how does this come all the way back to my nerdy Marvel cinematic universe project? When I watch movies and I see someone get hurt, I feel empathy for them and I can feel into them and mirror it in my own body because I evolved to be part of a social group. My brain actually makes me feel what they are feeling because understanding how others feel is part of the glue of a social structure. A complicated study where they gave people a placebo pain killers and then cures for the placebo pain killers determined that our empathy for pain is connected to our self pain. So I don't like seeing people get hurt on television, or in films, or in prank videos because I connect it to my own pain. Some people take this a little further. They might mirror facial expressions that they see in other people or on television. Or like me, they grab the part of their body that's hurt or struck when they see it in a film. Some people feel an even stronger effect than the average person because of synesthesia. I don't think I have this, I don't know. But synesthesia is the crossing of streams and senses coming into the brain. Basically, people can hear colors or see flashes when they hear sounds, stuff like that. Any senses can be crossed, so there is such thing as mirror touch synesthesia. People actually feel the touch on their own body of someone they're seeing be touched. Some people don't even know that that isn't normal until they're told because they've experienced it their whole life. If you're feeling this right now, you might have mirror touch synesthesia. Human bodies are incredible. But aside from connection to films and television, and my aversion to horror and slapstick, and hyper-empathetic feelings that some people feel for others, this is really, really cool stuff. Understanding this process about how we humans connect with other humans, that's powerful stuff. We can use this knowledge and we are using it to understand and treat autism and psychopathy. Though they're unrelated, both disorders do have roots in understanding empathy. So what about you? If someone cuts their cheek in a movie, do you grab your face? Are you into slapstick comedy but also feel empathy for those people? Talk about it in the comments. Thanks for watching, nerd fam, thank you so much. I'm going to take a week off for Christmas. You're still going to get a video, but it's going to be a little different. Thanks again so, so much for watching, and I will see you in the new year.

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What causes emotional responses when watching movies? It's all in the brain. Deeply emotional cinematic experiences are a product of mirror neurons. In this segment, host Trace Dominguez discusses the relationship between mirror neurons, empathy, and memory. Part of the "Uno Dos of Trace" series.

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Runtime: 6 minutes

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